Ten Muslim students from the University of California were found guilty of misdemeanor charges Friday after a 2010 incident in which they disrupted and delayed a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States on the UC Irvine campus. The students, who could have faced jail time, were sentenced to probation and community service.
The university had previously suspended the Irvine Muslim Student Union in connection with the incident, and many observers — including Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the UC Irvine law school — criticized the decision to bring criminal charges.
I agree with those who are dismayed by the verdict. The interruptions of Ambassador Oren were brief and non-violent, the students didn’t resist ejection, and the ambassador was eventually able to give his speech in full. Clearly the students were disruptive, but they did not have the intent nor the effect of preventing Oren from speaking.
As a person who speaks on campuses with some regularity, I’d certainly be appalled if such an incident ever led to criminal charges against someone who was critical of anything I had to say — the idea that the disruption of a campus speaker would leave a student with a criminal record, and relying on the forbearance of a judge to avoid jail time, is astonishing.
But as I told the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday, the most important thing to underscore here is that this prosecution stands as part of a larger recent pattern of criminalization of non-violent student protest throughout California, and in the UC system in particular.
Again and again over the last few years, university officials in California have directed law enforcement to end protests by arresting students, including in circumstances in which those protests were neither violent nor substantially interfering with the functioning of the university. In many cases those arrests led (as here) to overreaching prosecutions, while in others the arrests themselves had a disruptive effect on legitimate protest.
It’s the university’s prerogative to set limits on student protest (subject to their First Amendment obligations to permit free speech and assembly), but those powers should be used with restraint and discretion. When the university finds itself deploying mass arrests of non-violent student protesters as a matter of course, as the University of California has in the last several years, something is seriously out of whack.
By contributing to the criminalization low-level non-violent protest as they have, UC administrators, police, and prosecutors have cowed some student activists while radicalizing others. They’ve fostered a charged, tense atmosphere in which students have chained themselves together on the high ledge of a Berkeley campus building and in which a UC San Francisco police officer pulled a gun on a group of protesters, all within the last twelve months.
The Irvine 11 were among some 250 California student activists arrested during the course of protests during the 2009-2010 academic year. That’s a mind-boggling number, and evidence that student-administration relations have gone profoundly off the rails.